Franz Hoffer, of Sterling Heights, takes in the view at Yellowstone Lake during a trip in 2013. A deacon at St. Michael Catholic Church and a lover of motorcycles, he has driven out West numerous times on his bike.

Franz Hoffer, of Sterling Heights, takes in the view at Yellowstone Lake during a trip in 2013. A deacon at St. Michael Catholic Church and a lover of motorcycles, he has driven out West numerous times on his bike.

Photo provided by Franz Hoffer


‘Just go wherever the wind or road takes you’

Local motorcycle enthusiast ready to ride again this spring

By: Andy Kozlowski | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published February 9, 2021

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STERLING HEIGHTS — At a time when many are cooped up inside due to the pandemic, hitting the open road astride a motorcycle is an exciting and socially distant way to explore the world — and bikers like Franz Hoffer can’t wait for spring to arrive so they can ride again.

The Sterling Heights man has traveled far and wide on his bike, including nearly a dozen rides to the rally in Sturgis, South Dakota; trips to Yellowstone and Glacier national parks; Daytona Beach in Florida; and along the East Coast.

And while the roads can be rough, he said Michigan itself offers plenty of places to ride, including the scenic Upper Peninsula, with its lighthouse-dotted beaches and endless woods.

“Anywhere in Michigan works,” Hoffer said in an email. “Michigan is one of the best riding states around.”

Hoffer, 65, lives with his wife, Arlene, in Sterling Heights. They have two children, Eric and Joy. Hoffer was born in Stuttgart, Germany, and his family immigrated to the U.S. in 1961. He grew up in Roseville and moved to Sterling Heights when he married in 1990.

Hoffer, a retired purchasing manager, is a deacon at St. Michael Catholic Church in Sterling Heights, where he’s known by the moniker “Deacon Harley.” That’s because his love of motorcycles is no secret. Likewise, among bikers, where each has a rider name that identifies them, he is known as “Preacher.”

He began riding at the age of 19, much to the objection of his parents, but in time they accepted his new hobby. At his church, he conducts the annual “Blessing of the Bikes and Bikers,” which sometimes attracts close to 100 participants.

Hoffer also helps with the “Ride for Freedom,” sponsored by Wolverine Harley-Davidson in Clinton Township, an event that honors Vietnam veterans and others who have served. Last year’s event featured more than 500 bikers.  

Motorcycle season for Hoffer starts in March and runs until late fall. During that time, his truck sits largely neglected in the garage.

“Winter in Michigan is torture for riders,” Hoffer said. “It drives you crazy when you go out to your garage and see that beautiful motorcycle sitting there, knowing you can’t ride right now.”

His first motorcycle was a Suzuki TS185, which he traded a couple years later for a 1975 Suzuki 550. That was the bike he kept up until his family started to grow. Then he parked the bike until his son hit age 16. Together, they restored the bike. His son now rides competitively.

In the early 2000s, Hoffer got his first Harley — a 2001 Electra Glide Standard. Today he rides a Harley-Davidson Road Glide Ultra, which he calls “the best long-distance cruiser on the market.”

Hoffer said that right now is when many bikers prep for more favorable weather in March. Winter is an opportunity to work on one’s ride, conducting maintenance and installing new parts — “like more chrome,” Hoffer said.

Winter is also a time to plan where one will drive when the weather is more favorable.

“For instance, if you plan on going to Sturgis — it’s always the first full week in August — you pretty much have to reserve your hotel, motel or home rental in January or February,” Hoffer said. “In a normal rally year at Sturgis, there are upwards of 350,000 to 400,000 attendees, so advance planning is needed, as it is for any of the major motorcycle rally events.”

 
So much to see
He said the pandemic has impacted the riding public in a big way, canceling or scaling back many events, with a dramatic drop in attendance. But riding itself is relatively safe when it comes to the virus — out in the open air, with natural distance between you and the nearest rider.

Last year, Hoffer and his friend Jim Rabine, who he calls “Jimbo,” would ride their bikes together every Thursday. They had no specific destination in mind, instead driving aimlessly around Oakland County, or up into the thumb area.

“One of the coolest things to do is get on your motorcycle and have no specific destination — just go wherever the wind or road takes you,” Hoffer said. “A common saying among riders is, ‘It’s not the destination, it’s getting there.’”

While Michigan roads can be notoriously rough — and many riders avoid it for that reason — Hoffer said it’s still one of his favorite places to bike. That said, Hoffer maintains that the riding in South Dakota and the surrounding states is second to none.

And getting there is an experience in itself. In driving to Sturgis, where he has met people from around the world, he has taken the southern route from Michigan through Indiana, up Illinois and across Wisconsin and Minnesota, and then straight to South Dakota. But he’s also taken the boat from Grand Haven across Minnesota, as well as the jet ferry out of Muskegon across Lake Michigan to Milwaukee, stopping at the Harley-Davidson headquarters and museum along the way.

“Every route taken holds special memories that I will never forget,” Hoffer said.

He said that riding through Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and Glacier National Park in Montana are among his fondest memories.

“The two loops around Yellowstone offer some of the most scenic and wildlife-rich riding there is. Stopping at places like the phosphate pools, Old Faithful, the falls, all while taking pictures of wildlife is incredible,” Hoffer said.

He offered a tip to others looking to do the same: “When taking pictures of wildlife, leave your motor running — just in case you have to make a quick getaway.”

He spoke fondly of the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone Lake, and spending an entire day exploring the rugged terrain of nearby Jackson Hole and Big Sky. He said the ride to Glacier was an incredible 5,300-mile round trip in nine days.

“What stands out about that trip is that there were wildfires in the area and some of the parks were closed,” Hoffer recalled. “I remember riding through smoke-filled valleys and roadways that, in one instance, was still smoldering a bit. We came across a camp where the Smoke Eaters (firefighters) would rest, eat and relax for a few hours before getting back into it. We stopped and talked with them for a while, told them how much we appreciate them. They told us of 20-hour days and some of the dangers they face — absolutely incredible.”

He said that Logan Pass — located along the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park — was “inspirational,” as was the glacier itself. He then returned home via an old rail route on Highway 2, passing through small scenic towns. Even the towns proved memorable. In Haver, Montana, he arrived in town late and was lucky to find a room.

“We walked across to a steakhouse that was just closing. They invited us in, locked the door and made us the best porterhouse steak I’ve ever had,” Hoffer said. “The waitress had big hair, and she and the cook sat down with us and shared a cocktail. Whenever we stopped for gas, people would talk to us: ‘Where you boys from? You be sure and ride safe.’ We followed Highway 2 across to Superior, Wisconsin, and on into the U.P., spent the night in Iron Mountain, then across the Mighty Mack and home — a most memorable trip.”

He said crossing the Mackinac Bridge on his bike is a “real experience” riding on its grating. When exploring the Upper Peninsula, he’s taken his bike north all the way to the Soo Locks, touring such places as Whitefish Bay with its shipwreck museum, Tahquamenon Falls, Pictured Rocks, the Porcupine Mountains, Lake of the Clouds, Copper Harbor and more.

 
Gearing up
While many motorcycle dealerships have been impacted by the pandemic, with some even closing permanently, the number of individuals “going out for a ride” seems to be about the same, said John Swiatek, the manager of Powerlet, a motorcycle supply store in Sterling Heights, via email.

An affiliate company, Coliant, also in Sterling Heights, specializes in wearable technology for motorcycle riders, such as heated jackets — a popular item on the chilly, windy roads.

Swiatek said that, right now, battery maintenance is critical for a bike to start again after sitting through the winter. Oil changes, brake fluid changes and tire changes are another winter pastime for many enthusiasts.

Swiatek himself is a longtime rider, having owned Harleys, BMWs, Ducatis, KTMs, a Moto Guzzi and a Vespa scooter. Today he mainly rides a BMW sports bike. His son also loves riding.

“My son Christian learned to ride a Yamaha PW50 before my wife could get him potty trained,” Swiatek said. “By age 5, he was a pretty good rider. He is 17 now, and mostly rides a KTM motocross bike. However, as a safe COVID pastime, he fixed up a Ducati Hypermotard 796. It was his first road bike, and he rode (recently) when it was 28 degrees using our heated clothing. Riding and wrenching gives you lots of life skills; he has been accepted to five engineering schools and plans on pursuing an engineering degree this fall.”

Swiatek used to keep a bike in California and fly in to ride around, but lately he stays in state.

“For me, it’s also about the people. I have friends who used to race when we were younger. Riding on a racetrack is a world all its own,” Swiatek said. “Since last fall, my favorite places to ride now are ‘anywhere as to get a bite to eat and a coffee with my son.’ Our last half-day ride in Michigan was up the St. Clair River to Port Huron.”

For his part, Hoffer said he encourages anyone getting started to take riding courses, which are available for riders from beginner to experienced to advanced to competitive riding. Hoffer said he’s taken them all.

“Start on a smaller motorcycle — 500cc to 600cc — until you get some miles under your belt, and then gradually trade up to whatever motorcycle suits you,” Hoffer said. “I’ve got more than 100,000 miles of safe riding under my belt: no accidents, but many close calls — usually caused by a distracted driver that didn’t see me. Wear a DOT helmet, goggles, gloves, riding boots and other protective gear. Don’t get off on being ‘macho’ — plenty of them are laying in graveyards.”

Swiatek echoed the dangers, but also the beauty, of riding.

“Different bikes provide different ‘perfect moments.’ A perfect moment is when you are riding and all of a sudden realize how wonderful and precious life really is. Maybe it is because you are so close to possibly dying — not sure. Out on the expressway, you see the concrete going by at 80 mph, inches away from your legs and feet, for hours. Out in the woods, you see the trees fly by, just inches away from your hands — you’re thankful you don’t hit one.

“Surrounding all this surreal chaos is often the calm, perfect sun or moon. Maybe a lake. The fresh air and a drone of mechanical bits whirring and creating familiar, confident sounds. The repetitive potato-potato-potato sound of an antique Harley at 50 mph is hard to beat,” he said. “Put these ingredients together on a hot summer night out in the country, and the experience might just produce a euphoric ‘perfect moment’ — you never can tell.”

Swiatek concluded with a favorite saying and potentially life-saving piece of advice: “It is more fun to ride a slow bike fast, than a fast bike slow. Learning to ride on a big, fast bike is a potentially lethal mistake.”

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